A Guide to Hand-Poke Versus Machine Tattoos: Process, After-Care, and Experience

A Guide to Hand-Poke Versus Machine Tattoos: Process, After-Care, and Experience
Photo: Getty Images

I was 18 years old when I got my first tattoo. My dad looked at it, looked at me, and said, “Don’t get any more.” I’ve since gotten another one, and what I thought would cleanse my palette whetted it even more. Eventually, a friend (who is also a skilled artist) told me she does stick-and-poke tattoos for almost everyone she knows. I immediately considered it.

After all, they’re pretty much everywhere I look, including my Instagram feed. Even celebrities such as Rihanna and Ke$ha are opting for “hand poke” art over the traditional machine.

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Rihanna Hand Poke Tattoo

Getty Images

Although the process has been plagued with its fair share of safety concerns, there are more and more hand poke shops cropping up, which means tattoo professionals are dedicating their artistry to the unconventional form. Ahead, two artists, Tiffani Walton, hand poker from SlowPoke Ink, and Muriel de Mai, machine tattooer from her self-named shop, give their expert commentary on the never-ending machine versus hand-poke debate.

What’s the Big Difference?

The bare-bones difference boils down to how the ink is inserted into the skin. Walton describes the process of hand poke as “a sterilized tattoo needle is attached to some sort of grip, dipped in ink, and pushed into the skin by hand. The needle goes just as deep and the results are just as permanent.”

Meanwhile, the classic rotary machine used by Mai works like this: “There’s a small motor encased in each rotary tattoo machine that moves the attached tattoo needles up and down in a smooth, almost cyclical pattern.” Based on application, the machine is the only thing that separates hand poke from traditional rotary, but with the absence of the machine, Walton favors the new stylistic possibilities and challenges that come with it.

Let’s Talk About Safety

Regardless of the method, there are always key things to look for: sterile equipment, clean surfaces, and proper hygiene, to name a few. Walton says hand poke is just as safe as machine “as long as the artist is experienced, reputable, and clean.”

But where things get tricky is when people tattoo at home. Although it seems like an easy recreational activity, Walton says to never give or get hand-poke tattoos. “The typical homemade hand-poke supplies are a sewing needle, thread, and pen or craft ink. Sewing needles are much wider than tattoo needles and open the skin too far, causing blowouts and unnecessary scarring.” She continues listing things such as improper sterilization, disposal, and wrong ink type as even more reasons to stick to professional shops.

It’s not just hand poke, either. You can find machine tattoo kits for as little as $53.95 online (seriously, what?!). While Mai says a lot of professionals start out this way, “you have to keep in mind that you can contaminate other people or yourself if you do not follow the health and safety measures. It is also important to have good material when you are learning because usually pre-prepared tattoo kits are really cheap and contain bad materials that could be harmful.”

The Healing Process

There’ve been tons of myths flying around about the healing processes for both machine and hand poke. Machine-based tattoos, depending on size and type of shading, take two to three weeks. As for hand poke, Walton says they tend to heal faster. Plus, an added bonus of “less itching and scabbing” makes up for time spent in the chair.

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A New Kind of Experience

The first thing you’ll likely hear about hand-poke tattoos is how much longer they take than machine. Like hours longer. This can be chalked up to the tedious nature of having to individually poke every cell, depending on how extravagant the design is, says Walton.

But the time taken isn’t always a negative thing. Walton says, “Most clients describe the hand-poke experience as quieter, less painful, and generally more chill. I keep the atmosphere in my room fairly peaceful compared to a lot of artists and that influences their perception as well.”

The counterculture nature of hand poke is one of the reasons people love them. Even Mai, who is indeed a professional, thinks it’s “unfortunate that the more side, underground form of tattooing is becoming so professionalized.” There’s something rebellious about getting a tattoo outside of what your parents, or grandparents, once saw as rebellious. And even if not for the rebel inside us all, hand poke is a new form of art that many people don’t want to see minimized (or crushed) under professional standards.

The Choice of Craft

When it comes to deciding if you want hand poke or machine, it’s time to think about what kind of tattoo you want. Each process offers different kinds of styles, strengths, and challenges. Walton notes her style of tattooing “embraces small details, stipple shading, and natural content, which looks different when done by a machine.”

However, she “typically turns down script, full-color and realism designs, because I know my coworkers who use a machine can do it better than I.” Hand-poke and machine tattoos are less about ink insertion and more about varying styles. It’s not just underground versus mainstream, but thinking about what kind of art you want, and which type fits your vision better, too. After all, it is your body and it is going to be there permanently.

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There it is. A simple guide to the world of hand-poke and machine tattoos. Either way you lean, you’ll at least know what’s in store. And as for the hand poke I was going to get from my friend, I think I’ll opt out and go with an artist who definitely knows what they’re doing.

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